‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

NOTES

This difficult poem describes a dream encounter between the living and those killed in the First World War, attempting to instruct the reader that they should avoid pity or praise when speaking to the dead: they have been transformed by death into ghosts of the people they once were, and there can be no meaningful conversation between the two.

When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead: Again, this title has been applied after the fact. This has become a famous poetic image and quotation related to the First World War: it encompasses the scale of human loss in a nightmare vision of powerlessless (‘mouthless’, of course, suggests their inability to speak— or have their voices heard by others).

STRUCTURE: This is a sonnet. To see previous notes which describe the sonnet’s traditional structure, see Rupert Brooke’s ‘Peace’, ‘The Dead’ and ‘The Soldier’. Sorley’s sonnet has an unusual structure:  ABABBABA CDCDCD. It retains a distinct octet and sextet, but as a sonnet it is nonetheless unconventional, not least in its uncompromising subject matter.

“When you see millions of the mouthless dead… pale battalions go”: The opening lines are immediately both shocking and haunting. The second person address (the use of ‘you’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘I’) immediately personalizes the nightmare vision of the millions dead. It is an interesting question as to whom the implied reader is in this poem: is it those at home who have not witnessed the horrors of the war? Or is the march of the dead soldiers across the dreamworld of the living a universal experience, something unavoidable? Greek myth, which Sorley knew well, sometimes made the gods of sleep (Hypnos), death (Thanatos) and dreams (Morpheus) brothers; in this sense, encountering those who have died in battle in dreams is not necessarily an unexpected meeting.

“Say not soft things as other men have said, / That you’ll remember.”: the speaker warns against polite consoling or pitying words to the dead. The warning seems to address feelings of shame or embarrassment that the implied reader might feel: introducing the submerged question of guilt about the deaths of the men.

“For you need not so. / Give them not praise.”: these short sentences of instruction are written in a peculiarly disjointed way. The souls of soldiers might be expected to draw from the living kind words or praise. Yet the words ‘not’ (and later ‘nor’) interrupt and negate such responses: they’re simply not an option. This sense of interruption of expectations and meaning within the style of writing is known as anastrophe– where the grammar of a sentence seems deliberately disjointed or strangely ordered for effect. Compare the greeting to the dead in Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’— where the speaker begins, “Strange friend” (p.194).

“For, deaf, how should they know it is not curses… gashed head?”: The horrific insensibility of the dead is compounded with the observation that they cannot hear what you have to say to them. The reference to ‘gashed heads’ here is deliberately disturbing: the soldier’s wounds persist after death.

“Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.”: with each line the insensibility of the dead to the living increases. “Tears”— pity— have no use here.

“Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.”: the repeated rejection of what might be thought as humane or proper responses to the dead soldiers in each instruction emphasises the distance and difference between the dead and the living. The idea that it is ‘easy to be dead’ is shocking, even if it does appeal to intuition (that it is harder to stay alive than stay dead).

“…‘They are dead’. Then add thereto. ‘Yet many a better one has died before.”: there is, again, something shocking about the matter-of-factness of these instructions. The instruction to add that better people have died than the dead in war is so unsentimental as to seem chilling. It is interesting to speculate why Sorley uses this objective tone when writing about this encounter with the dead. Why is he alienated by the solecisms (kind words and acts) of the living? Is it because they are useless once a man is dead? Does Sorley blame the naively sentimental, the kind and the patriotic for the war?

“scanning all the o’ercrowded mass,”: “scanning” means looking; “o’ercrowded” means overcrowded. There are, remember, millions of dead soldiers crowding this dream space. “Mass” suggests they have lost individuality: it is an interesting word in early twentieth century discourse. ‘The masses’ were people perceived as a scary and undifferentiated entity, rather than as a large group made up of individuals. It may have a sinister suggestion here.

“…should you / Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, / It is a spook.”: the lines mean ‘if you see someone you loved before, it is a ghost’. The contrast between the hopeful expectation of the bereaved viewer and the unsentimental speaker is again contrasted. The choice of the word ‘spook’ is interesting: it is careless, flippant, almost dismissive, having few of the high-flown religious connotations we might expect when talking about such a moment.

“None wears the face that you knew. Great death has made all his for evermore.”: a chilling tone continues to the end. The common personification of Death, as a ruler or king over all, that we have already found in Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’ (p.164) makes a reappearance here. Note that, like Grenfell’s poem and the previous by Sorley, this is an unchristian poem. There is no consolation of heaven for the righteous dead, similarly no promise of hell; kind or thoughtful acts affect nothing, and are quite useless— they seem almost to be vanities; while the ‘mass’ of dead are regarded objectively, almost without discrimination. The inspiration for this vision is, similar to Grenfell, the classical idea of death and afterlife found in Greek myth. Hades ruled over the Greek underworld or afterlife; those who led unremarkable lives would wander the fields of Asphodel in Hades, having forgotten their previous identities, leading neutral, ghostly lives. Heroes of battle would live in the Elysian fields; but the afterlife of the ‘mass’ of dead that Sorley describes here fits far closer the fields of Asphodel. The lack of a sense of pity or consolation in the poem marries up with this bleak world of identity lost and disconnection from the world of the living.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is part of a long tradition of poems that describe the encounter between the living and the ghosts of the dead who have been killed in battle. It can usefully be compared within the anthology to Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ (p.194) and, outside the anthology, with Hardy’s ‘The Man He Killed’.]

‘All the Hills and Vales Along’

All the hills and vales along
Earth is bursting into song,
And the singers are the chaps
Who are going to die perhaps.
O sing, marching men,
Till the valleys ring again.
Give your gladness to earth’s keeping,
So be glad, when you are sleeping.

Cast away regret and rue,
Think what you are marching to.
Little live, great pass.
Jesus Christ and Barabbas
Were found the same day.
This died, that went his way.
So sing with joyful breath,
For why, you are going to death.
Teeming earth will surely store
All the gladness that you pour.

Earth that never doubts nor fears,
Earth that knows of death, not tears,
Earth that bore with joyful ease
Hemlock for Socrates,
Earth that blossomed and was glad
‘Neath the cross that Christ had,
Shall rejoice and blossom too
When the bullet reaches you.
Wherefore, men marching
On the road to death, sing!
Pour your gladness on earth’s head,
So be merry, so be dead.

From the hills and valleys earth
Shouts back the sound of mirth,
Tramp of feet and lilt of song
Ringing all the road along.
All the music of their going,
Ringing swinging glad song-throwing,
Earth will echo still, when foot
Lies numb and voice mute.
On, marching men, on
To the gates of death with song.
Sow your gladness for earth’s reaping,
So you may be glad, though sleeping.
Strew your gladness on earth’s bed,
So be merry, so be dead.

NOTES

This poem describes a group of soldiers who are marching off to battle, singing as they do so. They are watched— or perhaps more appropriately for this poem, heard— by the speaker as they move away.

STRUCTURE: ‘All the hills and vales along’ has a complex and intricately developed structure. Written in rhyming couplets, it comprises four stanzas each of which adds two lines to the first so that there are progressively eight lines, ten, twelve and finally fourteen. This, along with the repetition which is a feature of the poem, brings a cumulative effect whereby the ending has power and ‘weight’. The lengthening of the verse also mimics an interminable march where each set distance travelled seems longer and longer. Nonetheless, the poem is written in a jaunty, ‘tripping’, trochaic rhythm; a rhythm which contrasts ironically with the grim journey of the soldiers.

Charles Sorley: Charles Sorley was a talented and athletic student who gained a scholarship to study at one of Britain’s top public schools, Marlborough College. In 1913, at the age of 18, he moved to Germany for a year to study at the University of Jena before going up to Oxford University. War broke out in 1914, however, and Sorley was briefly interned by the German government before he was allowed to sail home to England. He promptly joined up and was made a captain in the Suffolk regiment. He arrived in France in May 1915— but was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Loos in October 1915, at only twenty years of age.

All the Hills and Vales along: Sorley did not title his poems; they were found rough-written in his backpack after he died at Loos. Poetic convention is to take the first line as title.

“All the hills and vales along / Earth is bursting into song”: The trochaic rhythm is evident: “ALL the HILLS and VALES aLONG / EARTH is BURSTing INto SONG”. This provides a tripping, upbeat rhythm that seems appropriate to the seemingly happy, pastoral description of the opening lines (compare Blake’s opening lines to Songs of Innocence and Experience: “Piping down the valleys wild / piping gentle songs of glee…”). The living “Earth” is a motif throughout the poem; there is an almost paganistic symbolism to this fertile imagery. The “bursting” of these opening lines speaks of spring, but also foreshadows the shells of the front that may kill the marching men.

“And the singers are the chaps / Who are going to die perhaps.”: the tone of the first two lines is immediately undercut by the fierce irony of these following. The colloquial tone of the third line seems to suggest a kind of Georgian jollity— but the almost offhand conclusion, that the soldiers may be about to die, makes us bleakly reconsider the seemingly romantic scene Sorely has described.

“O sing, marching men”: the form of Sorley’s poem, with verse and chorus, reflects and replies to the soldier’s marching song in a darker, more self-conscious tone.

“Give your gladness to earth’s keeping / So be glad when you are sleeping”: The listener seems to enjoy the men’s song, a moment of happiness in the short time of optimism and expectation given to them.

“Cast away regret and rue / Think what you are marching to.”: The beginning of the second stanza seems to exult in or at least enjoy the men’s happy fearlessness, as they march to war and possible heroism. Note the alliteration (r) that orders the beginning of the stanza.

Little live, great pass. / Jesus Christ and Barabbas / Were found the same day.”: The reference is to the story of Christ and Barabbas. Arrested as Sorley speculates here on “the same day”, the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate condemned both men to die as Jewish rebels. He gave the Jews of Jerusalem the chance, however, to release one from crucifixion: they chose to free Barabbas. Hence the “little” man lived, but the “great” man passed: “This died, that went his way”. Using this Christian imagery, Sorley seems to be suggesting that the greater man will lay down his life for his friends and country. It was a common metaphor to compare the sacrifice of soldiers to the sacrifice of Christ.

“So sing… you are going to death”: it is reiterated that death can be welcome— but this is nonetheless unsettling.

Teeming earth will gladly store / All the gladness you can pour”: The earth ‘teems’— it is ‘full of life’. There seems to be a metaphorical equation here between life and gladness: understood abstractly, the lines seem to suggest a kind and infinitely comforting earth. If we literalise the metaphor, however— which means to make those abstract terms more realistic— the life that pours into the earth is blood: the blood of soldiers lying dead on the battlefield. This couplet is typical of the poem as a whole: superficially simple, even epigrammatic, but in fact deliberately ambiguous and ironic. 

Earth that…”: This phrase begins each line and is repeated rhetorically, in a technique known as anaphora. Anaphoraic rhetoric builds intensity with the accumulation of the same insistent phrase. Earth here becomes personified as a curiously unfeeling and amoral creature.

…bore with joyful ease / Hemlock for Socrates…”: a classical allusion after the religious. Socrates (469-399 BC) is one of the most important Greek philosophers. He was forced by the state of Athens to take poison (the plant, hemlock) because his ideas supposedly corrupted the city’s youth, and were thus dangerous to the status quo. In this image, then, Earth seems to be boasting of producing the poison that killed one of Western culture’s great thinkers and original radicals.

Earth that blossomed and was glad / ‘Neath the cross that Christ had,”: Earth again appears pitiless in this image. ‘Gladness’ might again here equate to blood— the blood that fell from Christ’s side after he was pierced by the centurion’s spear. The imagery of spring and blossoming recalls the Easter story, of Christ’s sacrifice for man on the cross.

Earth… shall rejoice and blossom too / When the bullet reaches you”: an unconsoling thought, given the examples given prior.

Wherefore, men marching… sing!”: there is a note of defiance in this exhortation. Note the continued alliteration, the rhythm of which is suitable for “men marching”.

So be merry, so be dead.”: the pithy rhetorical tone continues with the use of anaphora; while this line also uses another common rhetorical / poetic device, antithesis, that is the opposition or contrast of ideas in parallel or balance within a sentence. This becomes a refrain that will end the poem.

From the hills and valleys earth  / Shouts back the sounds of mirth,”: the countryside echoes to the sound of the soldier’s happiness. Another classical reference may be contained here: the myth of Narcissus and Echo, the water-nymph forever condemned to only repeat the last words of her lover. The Earth here seems to reply to the soldiers who will soon be lying down with it, pouring gladness “on earth’s head”, a consummation that results in a bloody baptism or rebirth. Tragedy qualifies this happy image, especially as we are already aware of the ambiguous, ‘other’ nature of Earth’s relationship with men.

All the music of their going”: another ironic statement: ‘their going’ speaks of the beginning of the soldier’s march, but also of their coming deaths.

Earth will echo still, when foot / Lies numb and voice mute.”: the end of the last ‘verse’ in this stanza ends with silence (mute) and ultimate death— the singing is done.

…on / to the gates of death with song”: the destination is stated clearly now. There is a classical clarity to the warrior’s journey at the end of the poem, but there remains a disturbing taint to the juxtaposition of death and life.

Sow your gladness for earth’s reaping”: harvest imagery that promises a new spring. The poem’s vision of sacrifice is disturbing because it refuses a kind of moral transcendence; the men will die, and a new world will come of this, but only the fecund and ultimately silent earth is the recipient of their gift.

Strew your gladness on earth’s bed, / So be merry, so be dead.” A final image of pagan fertility, where the ‘gladness’ that was blood now becomes definitively seminal. The final refrain captures the deeper antithesis running throughout the poem: that the living can celebrate death, and death inspire the living. Such a perspective is necessarily ironic.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Sorley’s poem is neatly placed in the Anthology. Positioned just after poems which depict the feelings of exultation that accompanied the outbreak of war, it both reflects this celebratory tone and subtly subverts it. In many ways it is a similar poem to Hardy’s ‘Men Who March Away’, in that it presents the happiness of soldiers as they march off to fight: but like that poem the poet seems to take a more objective position than the earnestness shown by the soldiers. ‘All the Hills and Vales Along’ is a deliberately ambiguous and ironic poem in contrast to, say, Brooke’s sonnets, which are more romantic and straightforwardly patriotic. Sorley seems to take in the perspectives of both the early, enthused participants in the war, and the later, warier critique of poets like Owen and Sassoon. This poem also bears comparison to other WWI poems that describe singing or marching men: such as ‘The Men Who March Away’, Sassoon’s ‘Everyone Sang’, and Ivor Gurney’s ‘Strange Hells’. It also bears interesting comparison to poems that dwell on Nature and man’s relationship to nature, especially WWI poems that depict nature as pitiless or inhumanly other in some way. Sandburg’s ‘Grass’ (p.168), Steven’s ‘Death of a Soldier’ (p.169) and Owen’s ‘Futility’ (p.193) have some of this objective and alienated vision of Nature. Instead of finding comfort or pastoral beauty in nature, these poems suspect that man has been born into a world hostile to man and morality. These poems take the perspectives of paganism and inspect them in the light of modernity, and find consolation about the horrors of war hard to find as a consequence.]